Dear Friends:

Having finished the 850-page biography of Peter the Great that you recommended and the hefty autobiography of Galina Vishnevskaya (her husband was Rostropovich), and Ian Frazier's long Travels in Siberia, I have set about learning Russian, using the Pimsleur method, hoping that, before I die, I'll also learn to read the script and will know enough to read some Russian literature in the tongue it was written in.

And, before I should lose my nerve about long books, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (688 pp. without end matter) is putting me to sleep every night. (Will I have to learn Japanese when I finish?) One of my students is writing a book about a woman who, at the age of six, survived the Nagasaki atomic bomb, so I need to know more than my thimbleful of information about the war that I will always remember as The War. Who knew that incendiaries dropped by American bombers on Tokyo burned eighty thousand people alive? The fire was so fierce it destroyed some of the bombers above. Who knew that Hirohito himself was hawkish to the end, despite his tour of Tokyo after the fire, despite the similar bombings of more than sixty other cities, and despite Japan's need to draft boys and men older than sixty, having killed off all the available males between youth and old age.

Hirohito was merciless in his intentions to carry on, having ordered the manufacture of various suicide machines to be used against American troops in the invasion? Who knew that MacArthur himself and the U.S. government spared Hirohito, whom many Japanese as well as most Americans wanted to hang. But didn't because the occupation needed him as a figurehead in order to make the profound cultural changes in Japan that we imposed? And who knew that Russia's declaration of war against Japan hastened Truman's use of the atomic bombs? The continuing postwar imposition of censorship in both Japan and the United States resulted in Americans' persistent ignorance of these facts.

I am certainly ignorant, but it is a condition that Herbert P. Bix is quickly remedying. He included among the illustrations in his book a wonderful photograph of Douglas MacArthur beside Hirohito. The emperor, a worried look on his face, stands rigid, dressed formally in what I think is a morning coat, at least a head shorter than the general. MacArthur looms casually above Hirohito in an open-shirted tan uniform, no hat, his weight on one leg and his hands in his back pocket. Nobody could doubt who won the war. I hadn't known that the occupying American army were unarmed or that Americans wrote the constitution that they then imposed upon the Japanese, or that the occupation continued until the beginning of the Korean War. I suppose that, in addition to the censorship, I was too busy with junior high sock hops to know what was going on after The War was over.

Now I must go study my Russian. Excuse me. Do you understand English? I understand only a little Russian. Are you an American? I am an American. Do you understand Russian? (This is about the extent of Lesson Number One. Winding my tongue around the word "little" --- there must be an nm or an mn at the beginning of the word --- is nearly impossible. Pimsleur is an oral method, and the spoken examples come at the rate of normal speech. I haven't been so tense as a student since I was learning long division in fifth grade, weeping at my desk.)

--- Dasvidanya,
Jane Resh Thomas

Go to a
to this letter

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH